WOMEN'S FEATURE SERVICE
India - New Delhi
Photo: Panchayat meeting in progress at Karisunda Gram Panchayat Office, West Bengal (Credit: Soma Mitra\WFS)
India: Bankura District of West Bengal
ALL WOMEN COUNCIL
Community Development Successes
Soma Mitra Mukherjee
Bankura (Women's Feature Service) - A unique 'gram panchayat' (village council) in Bankura District of West Bengal has all the makings of becoming a case study for management schools and is certainly a benchmark for what the electorate should seek in the forthcoming 'panchayat' elections. And the fact that this unique 15-member council constitutes just women is not its only distinction.
'Shakti', or power, is worshipped in the form of Goddess Durga all across Bengal but a visit to the Karisunda Gram Panchayat office in Bankura district of West Bengal will help explain what women power is all about.
The 22 villages falling under the panchayat's jurisdiction have achieved 100 per cent sanitation. "Toilets have been constructed in all the 3,511 houses in these villages. We have sensitised the families on the need to use the facilities and we do routine checks to ensure that the villagers are following proper sanitation measures," says Aparna Malik, 29, a panchayat member from Karisunda village. The pride of having achieved 'Nirmal Gram' status for ensuring hundred per cent sanitation in Karisunda is reflected on all the 15 faces.
(The Nirmal Gram Puraskar is conferred upon a district under the Total Sanitation Campaign [TSC] for having achieved total sanitation coverage, within a fixed timeframe, for all homes and schools; and for having eradicated the practice of open defecation. It is the only rural sanitation programme of the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.)
"When the CPI (M) decided to make this a model gram 'panchayat' with women members, it was a test for us," says 'panchayat pradhan' (village council head), Syed Manowar Jahan Begum, 46, from Karisunda village. "We were given tickets to contest on the recommendation of the villagers. They knew us well. They knew we were committed to community development. Most of us were elected uncontested. Even the three members of the Panchayat Samiti here are women," she states.
Rita Chandra, 47, a 'panchayat' member from Bodo Govindpur village, points out that before winning the election in 2003, all of them were ordinary housewives, although many had worked extensively in community programmes. "From pulse polio drives to immunisation for pregnant women; from participation in Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and Swayam Siddha Groups to actively implementing projects for the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), we have done it all. Our election to the gram panchayat was merely recognition of that work," she says.
These women do not have the advantages of a good education or family wealth. Most of them are uneducated but they are all literate. Kajol Majhi, 30, from Fadilpur village, who is the deputy panchayat pradhan (chief); and Gouri Ruhidas, 32, from Karisunda village, have never been to school. But they talk confidently of the work undertaken by the 'panchayat'.
"We have spent Rs 17,519,572 - out of a total allocation of Rs 22,838,478.60 (US$1 = Rs 40) - during the five years of office for community development. We have repaired 47 kilometres of 'murram' (mud-boulder) roads and built nine kilometres of new 'murram' roads across the 'panchayat' area. We have built 'pucca' (permanent) buildings for all the 15 primary schools here, set up 14 literacy centres, and have constructed four ICDS centres. Work is going on in another three," reports a proud Majhi.
While Majhi concentrated on infrastructural achievements, Gouri Ruhidas is more into advocacy. "We have worked hard to reduce school dropout rates. We set up an example by ensuring that our own children go to schools from the beginning. We are also trying hard to increase institutional deliveries - we sensitise families expecting babies to go to hospital. The number of home deliveries in unhygienic conditions and through ignorant attendants has definitely come down now," she says.
The women diligently pursued the district administration to adequately staff the two medical sub-centres in the area. This was a priority for them as the nearest hospital is about nine kilometres away. They have made ingenious use of their office space as well. "We ensure that a homoeopath and an MBBS doctor sit in our office premises twice weekly, and dispense free medical treatment to the villagers," reveals Malina Pal, 32, a panchayat member from Sanpura village.
With immense glee, Pal adds, "Don't doubt our business sense either. We are raising money for the 'panchayat' by renting out the ground floor of the office to the land and revenue department. Why do 'panchayat' members who are supposed to work in the field need so much office space, anyway? This way, the place is bringing in earnings for more development work."
But, it's not just goodwill of the villagers that has kept these women in power. They are also well versed in the cut and thrust of politics. Some of them come from families who have been in politics for generations, while others have learnt the ropes. "My husband works for Coal India as a clerk in Kolkata. However, when women got reservation, he encouraged me to enter politics. I had the base through my social work and I became a party worker. This year, I have set my targets higher. I am contesting for the Panchayat Samiti," says Jahan Begum, 46, who has studied till Class XII.
Krishna Bhattacharya, 41, a higher secondary passed member from Paharpur village, was, however, brought up in a family devoted to politics. From her father to six siblings, including three elder married sisters, everybody is a committed party worker. "I have not married. I am devoted to the party and my social work," she says. Kanchan Dey, 31, from Bodo Govindpur is the most educated of the lot. This graduate says she married her husband, Mahadev Dey, because he was a party worker. Her parents were none too keen on the alliance. "But I felt that a party worker was after all working for the common man, so wasn't that a good thing? Anyway, I am in active politics as well as community development with his full support," says this mother of a seven-year-old.
Interestingly, even though panchayat elections are around the corner no one, apart from Jahan Begum, is contesting. The party has not given them tickets this time round as the CPI (M) generally changes its candidates at the panchayat level after one term. But isn't that unfair? "Of course not," says Chandra vehemently, "We were working towards community development for 15 to 20 years before we became 'gram panchayat' members for these last five years. Now, we will just continue our work as it had been for many years. The party is giving an opportunity to new candidates as a matter of policy after the success we've had. We are happy to help and support them." And displaying amazing unity and loyalty, all the women are campaigning for their party colleagues now.
The women admit that in their tryst with power for five years they have gained in confidence, become more knowledgeable and learnt not to pick fights but give in for the bigger cause. "We are not afraid of returning home late now. Family members no longer caution us. They know we can take care of ourselves. Our strength is not physical, it's moral. All the people here know us, love us. They recognise the positive results of our efforts. They know we have not cheated or become corrupt. None of them will think of harming us. If anyone faces any difficulties, the others will rush to her aid. The Rs 40 monthly honorarium we get as 'panchayat' members is insignificant. It's the respect we've earned within the community that is our real gain," declares Kanchan Dey.
The women 'panchayat' members of Karisunda have certainly packed a punch. When it comes to accountability, they offer a lesson or two to politicians everywhere.
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